What shall I preach on next?

Those of us committed to verse by verse exposition will know that one of its practical advantages is that it takes away the weekly stress of deciding what to preach on.  If we preached from Ephesians 1 last week we know that we will speak from Ephesians 2 this week.  But what about the macro level?  How do we decide what books our people need to hear?

Some pastors arrange their teaching programmes for a whole year or even longer; others work 4-6 months ahead.  Our church tends to arrange its rotas three months at a time which means I am beginning to think about July to September at the moment.

Here are seven questions I ask myself during this process:

1. Am I cultivating the sorts of habits out of which a good sermon series can grow?

There are certain habits that can lay the foundation for deciding what to preach on.  Along with cultivating our own walk with God through prayer, one piece of advice that I was given is to read through the whole Bible every year.  This will help to ensure that when we come to select material for sermons that our eyes are open to all the possibilities.

The tendency exists among all of us to preach on what we know.  Therefore, if we have not read 1 Kings recently then we are very unlikely to preach on 1 Kings.

Another habit recommended by Derek Prime is to write down the ‘seeds of sermons’ when they occur so we can retrieve them at a later date.  These days, the ability to make notes easily on an iPad should mean that the annoying feeling of writing something down only to lose it is a thing of the past.

2. Have I prayed?

A series must be chosen prayerfully and carefully.  Peter Grainger adds, “Considerable thought and prayer is needed before deciding on a series and its relevance to a particular congregation.  There is nothing worse than wondering in week four of a two year series on 1 John, whether you have made the wrong choice.” (Firm Foundations, p10)

Similarly, Mark Driscoll recommends the practice of taking a few days in solitude and silence before God.  In Vintage Church he writes, “During that time with God I am refreshed and encouraged as I prayer-walk, canoe, read my Bible, repent of sin, journal thoughts that come to mind as I spend the day with God, and ask God to give me direction regarding my Bible study, out of which comes my preaching and teaching… Once I believe God has burdened me with a specific book of the Bible, text, or topic, I then spend time prayerfully considering why and how God would have me study it.” (p96-97)

Not all of us can go into the wild, but most of us can manage to find somewhere to pray and a quiet coffee shop in order to journal, reflect on the church and jot down some thoughts.  Ideas for my most recent series have come as I have walked and prayed and thought about our needs and challenges as a church.

3. What have we preached on recently?

We aim to give a balanced diet to the sheep and therefore a consideration of what has been taught previously will affect what we teach next.

Since arriving at Ambassador almost two years ago I have taught the book of Joel, Mark 1-11, Philippians, the book of Joshua, 1 Corinthians 6-7 and we are part way through Ephesians.  Henry, an elder who shares some of the preaching with me, has been teaching a thematic series on prayer.  Before I arrived, the church had a series on the life of Joseph, Colossians and the Apostles’ Creed.  Furthermore, some of our home-groups have recently covered Acts, Romans and Proverbs.

What are we in danger of neglecting?  This list pushes me in the direction of the Old Testament for the summer.  When did we last do something from the Psalms or wisdom literature?  Equally I would like to finish off Mark’s gospel at some point.  Long term, when was the last time we did any apocalyptic?  What about a short topical or doctrinal series?

4. What does the church need?

When considering a preaching series we need to take into account the needs of the congregations where God has placed us.  Haddon Robinson comments that expositors “must be as familiar with the needs of their churches as they are with the content of their Bibles.” (Biblical Preaching, p54)

When you are new at a church it can be hard to know the issues that affect it, but this is something that should grow over time.  Again, we could ask: How is the congregation composed?  Are there a lot of new Christians?  Is there a lot of transfer growth?  Has the church been confused by a split at another church in town?  Are people unsettled after the fall of a prominent local Christian leader?  Is there confusion over a particular lifestyle or issue?  Do we need to a renewed emphasis on evangelism?  Any number of these factors might affect our choice of series.

In a recent interview Tim Keller says that his practice is to develop certain themes during the year.  Following a scheme originally developed by Young Life he aims to emphasise God’s character and apologetics in the autumn, Christ and his work in the winter and then Christian living and building one another up in the spring.  This corresponds to when most new people arrive at the church in the autumn, and fits well with an emphasis on Christ’s life, death and resurrection in the period between Christmas and Easter.  The aim is to hit similar themes regularly but from different books of the Bible thereby exposing people to the breadth of Scripture and introducing them to parts that they might otherwise never reach.

At Ambassador about 40% of our current membership list has started attending the church since August 2010, and this has meant that we have taught on Philippians (unity and partnership in the gospel) and Ephesians (the nature of the church).

A long term goal for every church pastor should be to take church members into territory that they might not otherwise explore.  In Hong Kong this would mean not just sticking with the New Testament but also preaching from the Old as well.  Derek Prime says, “To bring our people into fresh pastures we must continually break new ground.” (Pastors and Teachers, p127)

5. Are there seasons in the life of the church which require a particular emphasis?

This might be a particular time of year (e.g. Christmas or Easter) or it may be a national event (e.g. the Olympics).  It could also be something happening in the life of the church (e.g. a week of outreach coming up) that requires special preparation or training.  It might be a local event.  In a previous church where I worked, the local museum across the road was celebrating the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery and we were able to tie in a preaching series accordingly.

6. How long should the series last?

This one is debatable!  The received wisdom seems to be that the more transient the church, the shorter the preaching series ought to be in order to give people exposure to a wider range of Biblical genre.  This will especially be the case when the congregation is comprised of a large number of young Christians who are less familiar with the Bible.  In Hong Kong, which is very transient, I preach through books of the Bible, but do so in blocks of 4-5 sermons at a time and in this way hope to give people a balanced diet over a period of 2-3 years.

7. What do others think?

I find that conversing with others is invaluable.  I try to speak to a range of people about what I am thinking to get their initial thoughts on it.  They range from the elder who I share some of the preaching with, to people who I meet up with one-to-one, other pastors, or even those who aren’t yet believers.  In theory this would also be something for us to discuss as an eldership but so far I have not been as good at this as I would like.

Throughout this decision-making process I will start collecting commentaries and articles on the book that I am thinking of preaching on.  This is especially true in Hong Kong where it takes longer for good resources to arrive!  I will also work through it during my quiet times (often using the excellent “Daily Reading Bible” series by the Good Book Company).  I will continue to pray and try to apply it to my own life and start to think about any difficult issues that the book raises (obvious examples for Joshua would be Rahab’s lie, the apologetic issue of the Canaanite genocide or the sun standing still in ch10).  I find that reflection ahead of time on potentially tricky issues relieves the pressure on the week before the sermon is due.

These questions are in no way exhaustive; they do however help me in what can sometimes be a difficult decision to make.

After all this, I can relax, put my feet up and get on with the job of actually working on the text…

Repost – We Interview Tim Keller About His Preaching

Timothy J. Keller is an author, a speaker, and the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in New York City, New York. Find here a more complete biography. We are looking forward to asking him a few questions about his regular preaching ministry.

1. Where do you place the importance of preaching in the grand scheme of church life?
It is central, but not alone at the center. Pastoral ministry is as important as preaching ministry, and lay ‘every-member’ ministry is as crucial as ordained ministry. I wouldn’t make a heirarchy out of these things–they are interdependent. But pastoral ministry and lay ministry is no substitute for strong preaching.

2. In a paragraph, how did you discover your gifts in preaching?
I preached about 200 different expositions a year for the first nine years of my ministry (when I was age 24 through 33.) During that time I was considered interesting and good but I never got a lot of feedback that I was anything special. I’ve grown a lot through lots of practice.

3. How long (on average) does it take you to prepare a sermon?
I pastor a large church and have a large staff and so I give special prominence to preparing the sermon. I give it 15-20 hours a week. I would not advise younger ministers to spend so much time, however. The main way to become a good preacher is to preach a lot, and to spend tons of time in people work–that is how you grow from becoming not just a Bible commentator but a flesh and blood preacher. When I was a pastor without a large staff I put in 6-8 hours on a sermon.

4. Is it important to you that a sermon contain one major theme or idea? If so, how do you crystallise it?
I don’t know that I’d be so rigid as to say there has to be just one Big Idea every time. That is a good discipline for preachers in general, because it helps with clarity. Most texts have too much in them for the preacher to cover in one address. You must be selective. But sometimes a preaching-size text simply has two or three major ideas that are too good to pass up.

5. What is the most important aspect of a preacher’s style and what should he avoid?
He should combine warmth and authority/force. That is hard to do, since tempermentally we incline one way or the other. (And many, many of us show neither warmth nor force in preaching.)

6. What notes, if any, do you use?
I use a very detailed outline, with many key phrases in each sub-point written out word for word.

7. What are the greatest perils that preacher must avoid?
This seems to me too big a question to tackle here. Virtually everything a preacher ought to do has an corresponding peril-to-avoid. For examples, preaching should be Biblical, clear (for the mind), practical (for the will), vivid (for the heart,) warm, forceful, and Christo-centric. You should avoid the opposites of all these things.

8. How do you fight to balance preparation for preaching with other important responsibilities (eg. pastoral care, leadership responsibilities)
See my remarks on #3 above. It is a very great mistake to pit pastoral care and leadership against preaching preparation. It is only through doing people-work that you become the preacher you need to be–someone who knows sin, how the heart works, what people’s struggles are, and so on. Pastoral care and leadership is to some degree sermon prep. More accurately, it is preparing the preacher, not just the sermon. Prayer also prepares the preacher, not just the sermon.

9. What books on preaching, or exemplars of it, have you found most influential in your own preaching?
British preachers have had a much greater impact on me than American preachers. And the American preachers who have been most influential (e.g. Jonathan Edwards) were essentially British anyway.

10. What steps do you take to nurture or encourage developing or future preachers?
I haven’t done much on that front at all, and I’m not happy about that. Currently I meet to with two other younger preachers on my staff who also preach regularly. We talk specifically about their preaching and sermon prep.


’10 Questions For Expositors’ Returns

One popular feature on the previous weblog was ’10 Questions for Expositors’. We start again next week with Julian Hardyman, the senior pastor of Eden Baptist Church in Cambridge, England.

In the meantime, you could catch up with some of the previous editions of 10 questions:

“This Might Sting”

I think I handle them better now than I used to handle them.  But they are never easy.

We have all had those requests for “a word with you” after the morning sermon.   A listener has listened and now they would like to speak, to voice their take on a particular section of the message.

I can usually tell by the expression on their face if they want to correct something I have said.  A furrowed brow forms a fleshy umbrella over their concerned eyes.  Perhaps they hazard a light hand on my shoulder.

This might sting, Pastor.

This is a moment of truth.  If we are not disciplined in responding to critiques, this episode can quickly morph into a scene from a horror movie.  About preaching.  It’s a new genre.

If we are honest, the hours following a sermon can be the worst time for someone to “share” with us.  We spent a week preparing.  We parsed things.  We preached with zeal as we simultaneously prayed for our hearers.  The sermon became our baby and we made it through the delivery!  And now someone is about to tell us that our baby is ugly, or that our baby did something wrong.  Or both.

Here are just a few things that I have found helpful to remember during a sermon critique:

The Goal is not “Good Sermon.”  The Goal is “Teach the Truth.”

People are kind-hearted.  Most people do not want to hurt our feelings or go to the trouble of pointing out our flaws.  They are generally thankful for a good service and ready for lunch.  So they will simply say, “Good sermon, Preacher.”

But when someone hesitates and then asks for a moment of our time, it could be that they have a love for the truth that outweighs the awkwardness of the conversation to follow.  In other words, if our goal really is to teach the truth then we should welcome feedback that advances that cause.

Other People Can Make Good Points

Preachers do not have a monopoly on understanding the Word.  Nor does the ministry of the Word stop with our conclusion.  The Word is at work long after we clock out for the morning.  Scripture is useful for “teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (II Tim. 3:16).  And sometimes, the preacher is the intended target.

When someone takes us to Scripture and shows us a crucial point that we missed or misstated, our allegiance to the truth should trump our hurt feelings.  It is hard to admit when we get it wrong.  But we must.  If we express heartfelt gratitude for the critique then we elevate the Word above ourselves.  That type of humility is an important discipline to model to our congregations.

Sometimes People Make Good Points in Annoying Ways

This is a tricky one.  It would be nice if every critique came with all the warmth and gravitas of a Morgan Freeman narration.  But those are rare.  I once received a critique that started this way, “Let me tell you something that you have obviously never considered.”

Let’s be frank.  That is a crazy annoying thing to say.

But he was right.  I had never considered his point.  In that moment I felt two responsibilities.  I needed to embrace the point graciously.  However, I could not abdicate my pastoral responsibility to recommend a smoother opening line.  Responding with something like, “That is a truly insightful point, but I think we could have started this conversation in a better way” usually fulfills both responsibilities.

Sometimes People Nit-Pick

There are times when a critique is true but not significant.  After making a passing illustration of a “cocoon” an earnest school teacher informed me that, in the context of my illustration, the image of a “chrysalis” would have been much more appropriate.  As I tried to follow her enchanting details about pupa (right before lunch) I thought it best to thank her with the gentle “thank you” that ends a conversation.

She had a point, but it was a small one.

But even those moments can be gateways into meaningful conversation.  If someone listens to an entire sermon and comes away obsessed with a seemingly small matter, it is probably because we have touched on something that looms large in their daily life.  Playful illustrations about children can conjure images of estranged daughters.  A few follow-up questions could reveal if the nits they are picking are attached to significant problems.  If we roll our eyes too quickly at nit-picking we might be the ones who miss the point.

Sometimes People are Wrong

We studied this passage for a week.  We read widely and lingered on nuances of Greek definitions.  It is likely that we know more about this subject than anyone in the room.  When responding to a critique, don’t be too quick to minimize the study you have done.

If someone laments a cross-reference you should have used, explain the choices you made in light of the text’s meaning.  Humility does not require us to look down at our feet and take all feedback to heart.  We may need to clarify our points, but that does not mean that they were wrong.

Confess, Correct and Move On

We have the great honor of proclaiming the Gospel and sharing the riches of Christ every week.  And we want to do it with excellence.  We are also called upon to preach difficult truths and to address complicated issues in our sermons.  The complexity of the task means that we will need correction from time to time.

It is not the end of the world.

Honest correction is not an assault on our character.  It does not belittle our pastoral office.  Critiques do not give us license to pout or to ruin our family’s Sunday afternoon.  If we are eager to confess our shortcomings and to correct the errors we make, then critiques need not be horrific experiences.

May the Lord use critiques, however they come, to sharpen our communication and strengthen our reliance upon His grace.

Cornhill Summer Schools

“The purpose of the Cornhill summer school is to focus on learning to handle the Bible responsibly so as to be able to pass on its message faithfully to others, and therefore proclaim Christ with integrity. The programme consists of key elements reflecting the distinctives of PT Cornhill distilled in such a way as to maximise the opportunity afforded by a one week summer school.”

What are you waiting for? Sign up below:


20 Ways To Outline A Sermon

A good outline can strengthen a sermon, providing clarity, progression and climax for those who hear it. Speaking personally, however, I find outlining an extremely exacting discipline. As a result, it has been profitable for me to study men who are most adept in this area – men like Charles Spurgeon, John Stott and Warren Wiersbe.

Emerging from that study, here is a list which I have compiled and that I sometimes refer to. It helps me think creatively about my sermon structure. Please note that most of the specific examples are borrowed from some of the above preachers.

1.  Quote directly from text

‘To live is Christ’.  ‘To die is gain’

2.  Single word headings of similar length, or sound

Unity.  Diversity.  Maturity

Preparation.  Lamentation.  Celebration. Denunciation

3. Use pictures in the text

A lonely garden. A costly cup. A hypocritical kiss. A useless sword. A crowing cock

4.  Same first word(s) but differing endings

The law is not greater than the promise. The law is not contrary to the promise. The law cannot do what the promise can do

The Spirit enables us to: fulfil the law of love, overcome the flesh, produce fruit

Beware of: hypocrisy, covetousness, worrying, carelessness

5. Put application in the headings

Remember what God is to you. Remember what God does for you. Remember what God does through you.

We must love Christ supremely. We must obey him universally. We must glorify him completely.

6. Questions

Are the dead raised? When are the dead raised? Why are the dead raised?

7. Groups

The preacher. The persecutor. The believer.

8. Obligation outline  – ________must be________

Leaders must be humble in accepting their responsibilities. Followers must be careful in selecting their leaders.  Evildoers must be certain of sin’s consequences.

9.  Say what the author does in his argument (especially useful for epistles)

He defended his right to receive support. He defended his right to refuse support.

He explains his authority. He expresses his anxiety. He exposes his adversaries.

He explains their adoption. He seeks their affection. He laments their regression.

10. Say what happened to the person in the text (especially useful for narrative)

God honored him.  God humbled him. God helped him.

Teaching the Jews. Helping the Gentiles. Warning the Disciples.

11. Alliteration

A clear conscience. A compassionate heart. A conquering faith.

Grace, goodness, glory.

The servant’s identity. The servant’s authority. The servant’s sympathy.

12. . Pairs

Profitable and unprofitable servants. Wise and foolish witnesses. Obedient and disobedient servants.

13. . Contrasts

Death-Life. Tablets of stone-human hearts. Fading glory-increasing glory.

14. . How to

How to use spiritual authority. How to wage spiritual warfare.

15. Twin parallel heading

The slave – you lose your liberty. The debtor – you lost your wealth.  The runner – you lose your opportunity.

16. From this to that

From failure to success. From sickness to health. From guilt to forgiveness

17.  Follow the chronology or some other marker in the text

The 3rd hour. The 6th hour. The 9th hour.

18.  Paradoxes

The two shall be one. Adults shall be children. First shall be last.

19. Headings that are precise, but pay little attention to corresponding with one another stylistically (D.A Carson seems to often preach this way)

Paul wants this prayer to be offered with earnestness, urgency and persistence.

Paul solicits prayer for himself , in connection with his own ministry.

For Paul, prayer for his ministry envisions further ministry.

Finally, it is important to learn that some of Paul’s prayers were not answered as he would have liked.

20. Don’t have a defined outline!